Jan 29, 2015
Best of Both Worlds: Work-life balance for athletic trainers
By Dr. Stephanie Mazerolle, contributing writer

Athletic trainers pride themselves on being selfless and giving it their all every day. So how can they achieve work-life balance?

athletic trainer
Photo: Eric Enfermero

In a profession that has traditionally featured long work hours and scheduling inflexibility, achieving work-life balance in high school and collegiate practice settings can be challenging. Athletic trainers invest a lot of time and energy into ensuring their student-athletes maximize their playing time in a sport they love. However, when it comes to their own needs, athletic trainers often struggle to find harmony with time at work and time at home or play.

The good news is that the issue of work-life balance for athletic trainers has been receiving more attention. Athletic trainers at all levels have been striving to find ways to continue in the job they love without missing out on time with loved ones, and they are sharing their solutions. I have had the opportunity to study the topic in depth, and the new research also offers promising strategies.

Recognizing the challenges

Each profession has its own obstacles to overcome to achieve work-life balance. In athletic training, a primary one is time demands. Research has shown that long hours are one of the biggest hurdles facing today’s athletic trainers. They work a minimum of 40 hours per week, but often exceed this number in order to meet the demands associated with their positions. Also, they may be working nights and weekends covering games, which reduces their available personal time, sometimes making them too exhausted to enjoy the time that they do have to engage in their non-work roles.

In addition, athletic trainers often have little control over their own schedules, due to shifting practice and competition times among the many sport teams. Trying to create harmony between work and home can be challenging when your schedule regularly changes, especially if sport coaches don’t communicate the changes in an accurate and timely manner. Besides long and unpredictable hours, athletic trainers often have more duties than they can handle. At the college level, schools may fail to meet the recommendations for appropriate medical coverage in terms of full-time athletic trainers. The secondary school settings are often limited to one full-time athletic trainer. This responsibility to cover all teams can lead to burnout.


Before trying to achieve work-life balance, it’s important for athletic trainers to first understand what it means. It can be defined as a person’s ability to accomplish what they consider most important in both their work and personal roles, while building positive relationships in their pursuits. However, the specifics of this balance are different for everyone.

Therefore, determining work-life balance begins with an athletic trainer reflecting on their life and the roles they assume daily, such as friend, parent, and professional. Next, it’s important to establish what roles are most valuable and the time and energy they require. Once this is done, it is easier to understand whether work-life balance is attainable and what strategies will help achieve it. From there, athletic trainers can develop goals and choose strategies that work for them.

Here are several ideas that can help athletic trainers find work-life balance:

→ Take time away: It’s important to remember that non-working hours should be rejuvenating and reaffirm an athletic trainer’s commitment to the profession. But to be completely effective, that time away must create total separation from work. One way for athletic trainers to accomplish this is by fully committing to whatever role they’re in outside of the office — whether that’s a parent, spouse, or friend. Having one cell phone for work only, which is turned off at home, is another method of achieving this separation.

→ Support networks: Work to create and utilize support networks among peers, family, and friends. Such networks help create flexibility and control over work scheduling, and allow for increased time for parenting, leisure activities, and household tasks. Consider asking a co-worker to cover a practice for you so that you can attend your child’s soccer game or go on a date. Or maybe you can rely on a spouse to pick up groceries so you can attend an important meeting at work. When you feel like you’re taking on too many responsibilities in one role or another, it’s time to ask your support network for help.

→ Set priorities: Assess the degree of importance of daily responsibilities and tasks, including both personal needs and professional obligations. These can include coordinating practice coverage, scheduling athlete treatment, and setting aside time for your own workouts. Saying “no” to certain things and delegating responsibilities helps create useful boundaries and structure in the workplace. But if you do say “yes” to new responsibilities, make sure to reassess your current ones and consider stepping away from them to help create balance.

→ Work-life integration: Athletic training jobs in the high school and college settings often feature built-in downtime when student-athletes are in class, watching film, or in study hall. These open blocks of time provide the opportunity for athletic trainers to do personal things, such as running errands, working out, or meeting friends or family for lunch or coffee.

→ Be creative: Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to achieving personal satisfaction and balancing work. Plan a run with a spouse or friend or get an oil change at lunch time. Whatever the need may be, it can be useful to be flexible and creative.

As a supervisor

Many athletic trainers and administrators also serve as supervisors. While they work on maintaining their own work-life balance, it’s important to remember their staff members are going through many of the same things. Bosses can serve as gatekeepers for the creation of work-life balance in their department.

Here are a few practical ways in which this can be achieved:

→ Department policies: While many strategies for finding balance exist, the most operational include a combination of personal and professional initiatives that emphasize workplace integration, effective communication, teamwork, and prioritization. Workplace integration may mean allowing your employees to bring their children to a practice or their family on a team trip. Effective communication is essential and must include coordination between all members of the athletic department staff, including the athletic director, coaches, and strength and conditioning coaches. If a coach wants to change a practice time, they must be required to communicate it to other members of the staff. Additionally, if an athletic trainer feels as though their responsibilities are becoming too great, they must feel comfortable communicating that to their supervisor or athletic director. Prioritization is an individual response to determine where the most pressing need lies.

→ Practice what you preach: It can be effective for a supervisor to model appropriate work-life balance behaviors. Doing so not only enhances your own life, but promotes the practice among staff and encourages subordinates to come to you for advice on how to successfully achieve it.

→ Job-sharing: Encourage and support the idea of job-sharing, or teamwork among staff. Sharing medical coverage among staff members can lead to increased flexibility and control over work schedules.

→ Coverage policies: Develop, implement, and communicate policies to all members of the sports medicine and athletics staff regarding the medical coverage provided by the athletic trainers. Policies should include treatment hours, practice coverage times, and other pertinent information related to the workday. This way, the whole athletic department is on the same page when it comes to your staff’s responsibilities.

→ Show appreciation: Reward and demonstrate appreciation for your staff through simple but effective strategies, such as saying “thank you” or giving them a surprise afternoon off. Regularly assess each individual’s workload and needs, and be fair, consistent, and open to suggestions. The demands of the athletic training profession can make it difficult to find a balance between one’s personal and professional lives. However, recognizing the challenges and having effective strategies to overcome them helps athletic trainers navigate their many roles. This leads to enrichment in both areas of life and a higher quality of care for the athletes.

Having a more optimistic outlook about the assumption of multiple roles may also positively impact quality of life for the athletic trainer. Assuming a work-life enrichment mentality can allow for satisfaction in all roles, as positive experiences in one can translate into a more positive attitude and experience in other roles.

Showing the way

When Ernest Eugene, MS, LAT, ATC, NASM-PES, CES, was an athletic training student at George Washington University back in the late 1990s, he heard nothing about work-life balance. A decade and a half later, he not only talks to his students and staff about maintaining a healthy balance, he serves as an example of how it can be done.

Married with two young children, Eugene is the former Director of Sports Medicine at Marquette University and current Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine at Virginia Tech. He also sits on an array of local, regional, and national athletic training committees. He’s discovered that keeping work and home life in harmony requires a careful blend of mixing and separating the two. “If I am at work, I put my all into work, and when I’m at home, I put my all into my family,” Eugene says. “However, there are times when the two intersect, and when that happens, I make sure I don’t lose focus on either one. I may handle a work issue that comes up when I’m with my family, but I won’t let it take three or four hours of my time. And sometimes I’ll bring my four-year-old into the athletic training room with me, when it’s not too busy.

“The toughest part is when there’s a sudden change in practice schedules,” he continues. “If I had something planned with my family that I can easily move, like going to the library, then I’ll reschedule it to cover the practice. But if it’s something big, like a birthday party, then I’ll work with my colleagues to make sure we have the proper coverage so I can be there for my child.”

   » ALSO SEE: Managing stress in the athletic trainer position

In his role at Marquette, Eugene strove to establish an environment where personal priorities were valued. “I always reminded people that we don’t live to work, we work to live,” he says. “As a staff, we made it a priority to find a way to get things covered so that someone could go to a family gathering or any other event that was important to them. Everyone was willing to cover for someone else because they knew it would be reciprocated.”

The benefits, Eugene points out, go beyond athletic trainers’ day-to-day lives. “When people have good work-life balance, less of them leave the field,” he says. “In sports medicine, there is still an old-school mentality of work, work, work from the crack of dawn until midnight. I’m not saying that approach cannot be successful, but we know athletic trainers will last in the profession longer when there’s time for family and life.”

Eugene also takes time to talk with students about the topic. “I tell soon-to-be athletic trainers they need to find the right mentors and instructors who will teach them not only the physical and intellectual aspects of being an athletic trainer, but also how they can balance work and family,” he says. “This was something that I had to learn along the way. But in the last 10 years there’s been so much more emphasis on it, which is great. I want young people to know they can work in the highest levels of athletics while also having a family. It’s another reason I bring my son into work–to show you can have both.”

As his students look for jobs, Eugene offers them one more piece of advice. “I tell them, ‘Understand who you’re going to be working with and ask questions about how they create a balance for themselves,'” he says. “As much as an interview is about showing you’re the right person for the job, you also have to find out if it’s the right job for you.”

Adding family

Early on in her career, Catie Dann, MS, ATC, CSCS, Assistant Athletic Trainer at the University of Connecticut, found that the key to maintaining work-life balance was to make the most out of every minute in her day. She taped ankles and tended to injuries for the women’s soccer and women’s swimming and diving teams with clockwork efficiency and carried that attitude over to her personal time. An hour break meant she squeezed in a workout or read a book. When her son Conner was born a few years ago, maintaining that work-life balance took on added significance. “When you have children, your priorities shift,” says Dann. “Personal time becomes even more important because it’s no longer just about you — it’s family time as well.”

“I’ve found that if you get your job done during the day, the players and coaches will respect your time outside of work.”

Catie Dann, ATC

But she didn’t alter her strategy of making every minute count. “If I know I’m going to have a 45-minute break in the middle of the day, my husband might bring Conner to campus, and I’ll hang out with them,” she says. “Also, the teams I supervise are family-oriented, so it’s not looked down upon when Conner and my husband are with me at practices and games.”

Though it has worked to intertwine her professional and personal lives at times, Dann also sets boundaries for when the workday is done. “I tell athletes and coaches that I don’t typically respond to calls or texts after 9 p.m., unless it’s an emergency,” she says. “That’s when I have family time, put my son to bed, and get some rest so I can be back in the athletic training room at 7 a.m. It’s not a huge chunk of time, but it’s enough to get refreshed and rejuvenated.

“The athletes and coaches are usually pretty good about adhering to these boundaries,” Dann continues. “Occasionally, I’ll get a call in the middle of the night, but for the most part, I’ve found that if you get your job done during the day, the players and coaches will respect your time outside of work.”

Now pregnant with her second child, Dann is preparing to again adjust her work-life balance, beginning with her maternity leave. “Figuring out who is going to take care of your teams in your absence can be stressful,” she says. “When I was pregnant with Conner, my maternity leave was from February until April, so I missed part of the women’s soccer team’s spring practices. Fortunately, my counterpart in men’s soccer was able to take over for me because our teams practiced back to back. “My maternity leave with my second child is going to be over the summer when we work fewer hours, so there should be less conflict,” Dann continues. “However, I am still going to come up with a game plan because I don’t want my coworkers to get burned out covering for me.”

While Dann’s personal priorities have changed through the years, her belief in the importance of time away from the office has not. “You’re not going to do anybody any good if you’re not at 100 percent,” she says. “If you know that you need an hour-long workout to be firing at all cylinders, make sure you find time for it. You have to feel your best in order to give the athletes your best.”

Night off

Kim Detwiler, MS, ATC, LAT, CSCS, Assistant Athletic Trainer at the University of Texas, believes that achieving work-life balance starts with not being consumed by what’s going on at work. She realized this about five years ago, while serving as an athletic trainer covering softball and Assistant Professor of Athletic Training Education at the University of La Verne.

“At that time, I was trying to balance my work in the athletic training room, teaching, and being chair of the NATA Young Professionals’ Committee,” Detwiler says. “I had a lot on my plate, and wasn’t taking any time for myself. I loved my work but I knew that if I wanted things to stop being go-go-go all the time, I had to make some changes.”

Detwiler, who covers softball at Texas, started small. “I decided I wasn’t going to do any committee work on Thursday nights,” she says. “That meant I didn’t check my e-mail, because if I did, I’d feel obligated to respond. It became a night just for me, and I continue to do this once a week. I use that time to go to the gym, watch my favorite television shows, or go to bed early. I still check texts, but I don’t respond right away unless it’s an emergency.”

A second strategy has been to not let others always dictate her schedule. “For example, if an athlete needs treatment, and wants to come in at 8 a.m. before class, but the team practices from 2-5 p.m., I’ll ask her to instead come in between noon and 2 p.m.,” Detwiler says. “When doing this, I’ve found it’s important to be honest by telling them, ‘I’m going to be at the school tonight until 11 p.m., so I’m not going to come in at 8 a.m. to treat you.’ I also ask that athletes only call or text me after 9 p.m. if it’s an emergency. If they’re aware of the realities of your schedule, they’ll be understanding.”

When scheduling conflicts arise, Detwiler says it’s important to talk it through with your supervisor. “When my grandmother passed away, I remember feeling torn about what I should do,” she says. “On the one hand, I wanted to be with my family. On the other hand, my team had a road trip. Fortunately, I work for understanding people, so when I was honest about how I was feeling, they told me to attend to my family needs.”

For younger athletic trainers, Detwiler suggests they develop an approach to work-life balance sooner rather than later. “I think it’s crucial to find strategies that work for you early in your career, before things build up and become an issue,” she says.

Stephanie Mazerolle, PhD, ATC, is an Assistant Professor and Director of Entry-Level Athletic Training Education at the University of Connecticut, where her primary field of study is work-life balance in the athletic training profession. She serves on the NATA's Research and Education Subcommittee for Oral Free Communications.

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